(CN) – A private wastewater-treatment company received a severe legal defeat from a California appeals court on Thursday, meaning it will remain on the hook for criminal violations connected to a hazardous-waste explosion at its Ventura County location in 2014.
A California Second Appellate District panel unanimously overturned a lower court decision that had thrown out an anti-SLAPP motion filed against the Southern California Wastewater District. The appeals court also ruled the district’s lawsuit accusing the County of Ventura Environmental Health Division of violating its due process rights was without merit.
“SCWW argues the Division has denied it due process of law,” Presiding Judge Arthur Gilbert wrote for the three-judge panel. “SCWW cites no authority that even remotely supports its argument.”
The case dates back to November 2014, when an explosion and fire occurred at the wastewater facility in Santa Paula, California, a small town located in the fertile Santa Clara River Valley in Ventura County.
The enormous explosion at the wastewater-treatment site resulted in injuries to several of the plant’s employees and three firefighters, two of whom may never resume their careers. The ensuing criminal investigation resulted in charges against the district.
The civil case the appellate court decided on Thursday related to the county’s environmental health division, which executed a search warrant on the premises a year after the explosion and discovered several barrels and drums of sodium hydroxide, a chemical known as “Petromax.”
A few of the drums had a pH content high enough to qualify the Petromax as a hazardous material, making its storage at the facility illegal. The county warned the company it needed to comply with regulations.
But the wastewater company disputed whether Petromax qualified as hazardous waste, and several meetings between the two entities failed to produce an agreement.
Rather than issue fines or citations, the county referred the matter to the district attorney.
The wastewater company sued the county, saying it had no opportunity to attend a hearing to publicly determine whether Petromax was indeed hazardous.
When a grand jury indicted the company and its executives in March 2016, it found Petromax to be hazardous waste. Soon after, the county executed a second search warrant and found more Petromax. Another bout of disagreement ensued.
This culminated in the wastewater company suing the county’s division of environmental health, saying the division violated the company’s due process rights and asking for a writ of mandate to allow for a fair and unbiased review of whether the chemical constituted hazardous waste.
The county then filed to strike the wastewater company’s motion, saying it was a strategic lawsuit against public participation.
Such a filing is commonly called an anti-SLAPP motion and is often filed by newspapers and media organizations when public officials sue them in a bid to silence criticism through litigation.
It is rarely applied to government agencies, but Gilbert’s 13-page opinion notes that, “Even the government has first amendment rights.”
The county claimed that the lawsuit was a blatant attempt to silence it, particularly as its only function was to make recommendations to the district attorney’s office.
Even though a lower court threw out the motion, the appeals panel agreed with the county.
“SCWW may wish to have what it posits is an administrative hearing,” Gilbert wrote. “But its primary grievance is that the division has declared Petromax to be hazardous waste and is assisting the district attorney in prosecuting SCWW.”
Thus, rather than arguing about a lack of due process, the wastewater district is attempting to silence the county division of environmental health, the judges said.
“SCWW’s petition seeks to deprive the Division of its right to free speech,” the panel found.
Not content to remand the case back to the lower court after overturning the anti-SLAPP dismissal, the panel also ruled the division has a right to declare Petromax a hazardous waste. Moreover, the wastewater district will have its due process through the opportunity to make its case during a criminal trial.
“SCWW will receive all the process that is due to it in the criminal prosecution,” Gilbert wrote. “There it will have an ample opportunity to contest whether Petromax constitutes hazardous waste.”
In April, former CEO of the private wastewater company, Douglas Edwards, pled guilty to seven of the 71 felony and misdemeanor charges connected to the storage of hazardous waste that were filed against the company and its executives.
Several Santa Clara Waste Water executives have pled not guilty to charges and are awaiting trial.